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Wicked Smart Interview with Ann Handley of MarketingProfs

Posted on May 9th, 2011
Written by Lee Odden
In this article

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    Ann HandleyIf you’re looking for one of the most influential and “wicked smart” voices in online marketing, Ann Handley is an easy conclusion. Add a sense of humor and brilliant writing skills and she’s easily #1 in my book. A journalist and co-founder of ClickZ, you’re more likely to know Ann as the Chief Content Officer for the wildly popular MarketingProfs which boasts over 388,000 subscribers. Ann is also co-author with C. C. Chapman of one of my favorite marketing books, Content Rules.

    A perk I enjoy most from blogging and working in this industry is getting to meet and know smart marketers. Smart + funny just takes it to another level and you can count on Ann for plenty of both. Along with the accomplishments, contributions, influence and energy she brings to our industry, Ann is genuine and grounded, plus she’s not afraid to “tell it like it is”. I appreciate those qualities a great deal.

    Read on to learn more about Ann plus her tips for marketers, brands, publishers and of course what’s hot in the future of online marketing:

    Besides being the goddess of marketing and diva book author, where do you spend your time?

    I spend most of my time right where I am right now: Online. In this case, I’m talking to you. But I spend a lot of time writing, connecting, emailing, creating online content, on Twitter and other social channels, and exploring new platforms, also known as “indulging my ADOS” (Attention Deficit… Ooh! Shiny!).

    My latest shiny object is Instagram. I’m using it personally, but I’m always thinking about how brands can use it and other publishing tools. That kind of thing is endlessly interesting to me.

    When I’m not right here, in front of the computer, I’m hanging out with my family—and trying to maintain eye contact with them even though I’m dying to check my iPhone (I keed!). At the risk of sounding like an eHarmony ad, I like walking my dogs, reading books with compelling characters, and taking walks on the beach.

    What would you like to be doing in 2 years?

    I have the best job in the world, so it’s hard for me to imagine doing anything different. Is “more of the same” a goal? : )

    I’ve had such an amazing year: Our book is a best-seller, MarketingProfs continues to grow in interesting ways, and I feel lucky to be where I am. So I’d be thrilled to have this same level of energy for my work life in two years.

    Lee Odden & Ann Handley SXSWi 2011

    Besides smarts, writing skills and a sense of humor, what are the qualities great content marketers should have?

    I love this question. And I love that you included a “sense of humor,” because I do think having a sense of humor and fun is critical. I’ve been talking for a long time about what to look for in a content hire, both 11 years ago and 11 (ish) days ago!  But I think the most important qualities include training as a journalist, writer, or similar, as well as business acumen, social DNA, and an amateur’s passion. Especially that last one: Is the person you want to hire already creating content just for the love of it, and not just because they get paid to do it? Have you heard them utter phrases like, “I am soooo blogging that…!”

    Marketing has changed so much since 2000. What advice do you have for marketers to stay current and relevant?

    It really has. But, at the same time, the fundamentals remain. What’s new is that we have new ways of communicating with customers or prospects… and them with us. That’s created all kinds of opportunities and helped marketing evolve in interesting ways.

    The easiest way to stay current and relevant is to read MarketingProfs. I know that sounds like a pitch, but I’m quite sincere: We see our mission as educating marketers on what matters. We are constantly surveying the marketing landscape and bringing our readers information and know-how on the stuff they need to know, and not just the stuff that’s cool. In other words, we pay attention to all of it so you don’t have to… Isn’t that a relief?

    Of course, there are other great sources of more in-depth and specific learning—including TopRank’s Online Marketing Blog ; )

    As a publisher, what insights can you share for companies that want to shift toward “brand as publisher” content marketing in terms of strategy and organizational change? Or should they?

    Brands really don’t have a choice. If they have a website, they are publishers. So the first thing is, Embrace it!

    Then consider what Content can do for your business by answering that Why question: Why are we going to create what we want to create? What are our goals? What do we hope to accomplish?

    That sounds obvious, right? But I’ve been speaking all around the country this past winter and early spring, and this is a critical, fundamental step that most companies completely miss. They start a blog because the CEO always wanted to be a writer, or they launch a Twitter stream because their competitors are there. And they have no sense of the strategy behind the tactics. They haven’t answered that Why question.

    Organizationally, companies have to deputize a content person. Content won’t just happen unless someone owns it; unless someone is responsible for it; unless someone’s job is to create it, optimize it, share it—to make sure Content Happens.

    So do what makes sense for your organization: Hire an editor, a chief content officer, an editor-in-chief, a chief blogging officer, a brand journalist, or whatever. But make sure someone has some power and authority, and the necessary smarts, to get things done.

    Let’s say a new business owner asks you for startup marketing advice – a B2B technology company. What are the essential marketing steps they should consider?

    Wow—big question! How much time do we have….? ; )

    My short answer: Know who you are; know who you are targeting, or who you want to reach along the buying cycle (and how you are going to stand out in their mind through compelling content); and figure out how you are going to measure what works so you can rinse, repeat.

    That’s at the strategic level. Then, you have to create your company’s story, and learn how to tell your story well. You then have to pick your tools and create great content, of course—especially with an eye toward search and social media, to reach your intended audience.

    And since we are talking B2B, I’ll throw in one more bit of advice: Don’t forget to humanize your marketing and creating your content in an actual accessible, human voice. Even in B2B marketing, you are still talking to humans. So why is it that so many B2B companies talk like robots? I suppose they think it makes them sound more official and trustworthy if they toss around jargon, buzzwords and other Frankenspeak. But it doesn’t: It makes them sound like tools.

    With MarketingProfs, how do you stay fresh with content ideas and topics?

    We read TopRank’s Blog and other top-shelf publications. [From Lee: Now that’s a compliment, thank you!] We see what resonates on Twitter and in other social channels. We listen to what people are talking about, what our members ask us for, especially when we ask them to identify their biggest marketing challenges. I also do a lot of “social prospecting”: I find a lot of MarketingProfs contributors or uncover hot topics by trolling social channels like SlideShare, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

    At TopRank we’re big proponents of search, social and content marketing but so many companies operate these functions in silos. How do you think marketers can improve their ability to work across channels and departments and get support for a coordinated strategy?

    To me, Content is the key. You can’t have an effective Search and Social strategy without first having a sound Content strategy. (Or at least, your search and social won’t be working as well as they could for you.) Content is the glue that knits everything together. Wait. I just totally mixed that metaphor. But you get the point. : )

    Eric Schmidt of Google has been quoted saying every 2 days there’s as much information created as since the dawn of civilization to 2003. How do you deal with information overload both personally and in your own marketing?

    That’s why the quality of your content is so critical. That’s where your story becomes so important. As Eric points out, all of us are flooded with Content on a regular basis. So the stuff that cuts through is the stuff that’s truly great! Companies that simply repost their press releases on their blogs and then wonder why they don’t get any comments aren’t the ones that are going to succeed.

    A lot of time when I refer to content that “cuts through,” companies think I mean “viral.” I don’t.

    Instead, I mean content that (as Len Stein says) is “packed with utility, seeded with inspiration, and is honestly empathetic.” Content that meets the needs of your customers in whatever way resonates best with them: that is, it makes them smarter, better educated, wittier, taller, and with better backhands and smarter kids! In other words: How can you help your customers and prospects with your content?

    Retargeting, QR codes, social business, curation and gamification are some of the buzzing topics right now. What’s hot on your mind this year? Next?

    Storytelling has emerged as a hot topic for marketers. Which makes sense, right? If you are creating content, it helps to get your story straight. ; )

    Also: Mobile generally (and QR codes, gaming, social-location platforms like Foursquare).

    As I said above, I like the bright and shiny new stuff, and I love to see what’s hot and new and fun.

    But to tell you the truth, I think we have so many tremendous tools right now that are being sadly underused, or used in weirdly ineffective ways. I think most marketers feel overwhelmed. There are so many companies still trying to figure out the fundamentals of blogging or other social tools… and at the same time there are companies adopting other bright and shiny objects with no notion of the best way to actually use them.

    Here’s an example: The other night we had takeout pizza. There was a QR code on the box that, when I scanned it with my iPhone, opened a Web page that gave me “the opportunity” to join the pizza company’s email list.

    There are two problems with that: First, the page gave me no indication of why I should turn over my personal information, other than to vaguely refer to “specials.” Really? What’s in it for me?

    The second problem was this: The page had about 10 fields (including my email, full name and address, etc.) Have you ever tried to fill out a form like that on an iPhone? So even if I wanted to give them my information—which I didn’t, by the way—they made it pretty difficult for me. Why make your customer work that hard?

    That kind of marketing is pretty close to insane, isn’t it? Yet I see that and similar things all the time.

    We’ve reviewed your excellent book with C.C., Content Rules, but what’s your most compelling reason people should buy and read it?

    The naked pictures inside.

    I’m kidding, of course.

    (Or am I…?)

    What resources do you rely on to stay current, informed and edu-tained?

    I probably read all the same marketing and social media pubs you do. Also, as I said, I get a lot of information from social sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn (especially LinkedIn Answers) and poking around SlideShare when I have the time.

    At the same time, I’m a big fan of feeding my brain in other ways: I’m a fan of autobiographies and memoirs (currently reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants) because I’m inherently nosy about other people. It’s interesting to me to see the way life shapes people. I read a lot of fiction of all sorts.

    I love The New Yorker (although it’s a constant source of guilt, because I rarely have the luxury of getting through an entire issue).

    And I love smart humor: My latest “edu-tainment” online discovery is, for reasons like this:

    Dear world,
    I dream of a day where we can cross roads without having our motives questioned.
    Sincerely, chickens.

    Actually, I take that back. It’s pure hilarity. There’s nothing remotely educational about it.

    Excellent, thank you Ann!

    You can find more from Ann by following her on Twitter (@marketingprofs) as well as at MarketingProfs and her book site, Content Rules.

    So now that I’ve had my chance to interview Ann, how would YOU like to ask her a question?  Better yet, how would you like a chance to win a signed copy of Content Rules?

    Content Rules Just post your question for Ann below and the best question (picked by TopRank Online Marketing staff) will be selected by Thursday afternoon and answered on Friday along with credit and a link to the winners blog or Twitter account.  So put your thinking cap on and get creative with a question for Ann Handley!